When Joseph Conrad, below, wrote The Secret Agent, he recalled a South London incident which was the inspiration for its main character. The novelist said: “The attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” He was talking about anarchist Martial Bourdin, who died after the bomb he was carrying in Greenwich Park blew up. Here JAN BONDESON pulls together the accounts of what happened.
On the afternoon of February 15, 1894, a foreign-looking young man was seen briskly walking up the zig-zag path to Greenwich Observatory.
When he was within 50 yards of the observatory, there was a tremendous explosion. Some schoolboys heard the blast and saw a plume of smoke rise through the trees. When they ran to the scene, they met with a horrible sight.
The foreign-looking man was covered in blood, his left hand was entirely blown off, and his abdomen was severely lacerated.
Unaware of the extent of his injuries, he asked the boys to fetch him a cab. They instead called some park-keepers.
“Take me home,” the wounded man demanded. But instead a doctor was called and the man was taken to the nearby Royal Naval Hospital, where he expired shortly afterwards, his intestines protruding from his abdominal wound. The man was identified as Martial Bourdin, a French tailor who was active in the anarchist movement.
These radical left-wingers considered the national state unnatural and harmful, and instead promoted the idea of a stateless society, or anarchy.
They were anti-royalists by nature and found it perfectly reasonable to use force and terrorism to promote their aims. There was, at this time, a considerable presence of foreign anarchists in London, congregating in the Autonomic Club, in Windmill Street, central London.
In France and other continental countries, the anarchists were firing off their bombs with abandon, sometimes to assassinate public figures, at other times in random terrorist outrages.
Severely persecuted in many countries, the anarchists had found a haven in England. Some politicians found it more than a little dangerous to import this dangerous foreign riff-raff; how long would it take, they queried, before these fanatical terrorists would start blowing things up in their adopted country?
The newspapers were full of the Greenwich bomb outrage, and there was much speculation what business Martial Bourdin had at Greenwich Observatory, carrying a powerful bomb.
The immediate suggestion was of course that the dastardly anarchist had wanted to blow up the observatory, and this was also the conclusion of Colonel Vivian Magendie, the Government explosives expert, at the coroner’s inquest on Bourdin.
The anarchists themselves retorted that it was against their principles to target scientific institutions that were dedicated to the advancement of humanity, but the journalists did not believe them.
There was also a suggestion that Bourdin had been carrying the bomb along, intending to pass it on to some other anarchist, for exportation to France, where it would be used against some obnoxious Government figure.
But surely, it would be a very dangerous practice to carry powerful explosive devices about like if they had been cauliflowers, and surely, the French anarchists had access to their own bomb factories.
In his 1897 pamphlet The Greenwich Mystery, a certain David Nicoll claimed that acting as a Government agent, Bourdin’s brother-in-law H.B. Samuels had provided him with the material to make a bomb.
There was further speculation that Samuels and Bourdin were perhaps not the best of friends, and that the crooked Samuels had considered the Frenchman ‘expendable’ and deliberately equipped him with a defective bomb.
The aim of this plot would of course have been to discredit the foreign anarchists and give the impression that they were planning further bomb outrages in London.
The pamphlet writer Nicoll believed that 30 Russian agents were active in London, spying on the radicals and plotting to turn the British government against them.
None less than Joseph Conrad was inspired by the various conspiracy theories around the Greenwich bomb outrage when he wrote his novel The Secret Agent.
The dismal anti-hero Stevie, whose body is scattered all over Greenwich Park, after the bomb he had been persuaded into carrying had detonated prematurely, was of course based on the unfortunate Bourdin.
The sinister villain Verloc was the agent provocateur Samuels, as seen through Conrad’s fertile imagination.
This is an extract from Jan Bondeson’s Strange Victoriana (Amberley Publishing, Stroud 2016).
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